As with so many teams in the ever-shifting NBA landscape, the Houston Rockets are entering this season full of questions. Is Clint Capela ready to fill the void Dwight Howard left at center, or will veteran Nene stay healthy long enough to scoop real minutes from him? Can free agent acquisitions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon stay healthy? The list goes on, but one question lingers above all: My goodness, will they be able to defend anybody?
Anderson is a huge liability on the defensive side and Gordon isn’t much better, but the center of all defensive questions surrounding the Rockets is James Harden. His defensive lowlight reels are filled with moments in which his brain seems to simply shut off. Well, Harden has heard all the criticism, and told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski that his workload plays a part.
“You can say [the perception] is frustrating, or you can look at it and say, ‘OK, what if I play 65 games and miss 17 games. Play 32 minutes a game. And look like the best player ever.’ I wish I could, but in this instance, I’m here to play and do what I do.
“We don’t have … listen, I can’t sit out games. My teammates, my coaches, this organization needs me on that floor.”
It sure seems like Harden is drawing a straight line between his workload and his inability to put forth consistent effort on defense. It’s the same notion that Rockets fans use when defending their superstar, and it does have a certain logic to it. For the last two years, no one has played more minutes than the Beard, mostly because he’s been the only person on the roster capable of generating his own offense. What’s more, his brand of offense — relentless drives to the lane to absorb contact and get to the line — is a particularly punishing one.
Now that Mike D’Antoni is in town, Harden will have the ball in his hands even more as the “points guard.” His load might be even greater on offense, and D’Antoni has never been one for aggressive minutes management (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire about his first season in New York). If D’Antoni can install an actual offensive system that can tread water with Harden on the bench, however, maybe he can play a little less and have more to give on the defensive side.
The above quote comes from an interview Harden did with Wojnarowski, in which the Beard makes the case that he’s ready to be the kind of superstar who winners can build around. He also talks about how important it is that he’s out there every night, playing major minutes for the good of the team.
But if he wants to truly be that core superstar, he needs to be better than he’s been on defense. It might come down to a choice between his workload and his effectiveness.